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Zhang Minjie born 1959

A Cart and an Ox on the Move
By Zhang Minjie born 1959
By Zhang Minjie born 1959

The Tangshan earthquake was the largest natural disaster of the 20th century. Hundreds of thousands lost their lives in the ruins. Zhang Minjie was 17 years old when he was buried alive and faced with death. His rescue was pure luck - or destiny. The dark visions Minjie had in the ruins changed his outlook on the world and are reflected in his paintings, lithographs and woodcut prints. Top prices are paid for his works all around the world.

Face to Face with Death

Zhang Minjie was born 1959 in Tangshan, a town with flourishing industries in the province of Hebei in northeastern China. The earthquake of 1976 not only destroyed the town completely and caused hundreds of casualties but also left the survivors severly traumatized. Minjie was trapped in the ruins for several hours but was ultimately rescued and given another chance at life. In a way his family was lucky in that they only suffered one casualty.

Haunted by this dreadful experience, Zhang Minjie sought relief in oil colors and started painting. Painting was not entirely new to him; he had also worked as a stage designer for the Fengan Theater. After the earthquake he also returned to the theater not only as a designer but also as an actor.

Deadly Peril Again

His need for artistic expression led him to northern China for studies. He drew people in everyday-situations and produced his first woodcuts. Talent and training finally gained him admittance to study printmaking at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. He graduated in 1990.

But fate had yet another threat in store for him. During his studies he travelled frequently to faraway places, for example to southeastern China, where one day he made a drawing of the highlands of the Yunnan Province. But the return path was blocked by a mudslide. In order to pass it, he had to cross a plateau and to climb 4000m to find a way out. This experience also had an enormous effect on Minjie's thinking.

Caught Between Tradition and Modernity

Zhang Minjie is an unique Chinese artist. He uses traditional Chinese techniques to create colored woodblocks for printmaking. The symbolism, surrealism, and the perspective contraction of Renaissance in his prints, however, are more closely related to Western art. He was probably first exposed to these ideas in encounters of international artists in 1994 in Japan. Minjie did not literally adopt them but rather he adapted them as thematically needed.

Minjie also examined the theories of art as well as influenced art in modern China. Periodicals like Zhongguo Banhua and Shijie Yishu (World of Art) have published his articles, and encouraged discussions among experts. For these reasons, Zhang Minjie is considered one of the most important artists in China.

Minjie also obtained approval and acceptance from government officials. The government of the province of Hebei awarded him for his work in the spirit of Chinese culture. Today he is the director of the Chinese National Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou. Furthermore he founded the Masses Art Center in Qinghuangdao, where he is personally engaged in research projects.

Style and Technique of Zhang Minjie

Zhang Minjie works with the techniques of oil paintings, lithographs and woodblock prints. He perfected his woodcutting technique by studying the Japanese methods, using several printing plates and oil-based colors to create the finest transitions of colors and vivid three-dimesionality.

His prints and paintings follow his vision. Some parts in his artworks seem to open hovering spaces and are not in perspective conformity. The crowds, although they are three-dimensional figures, look and act like abstract patterns. Normally they cover the entire piece. Everything is presented in similar colors.

Themes and Motifs

The bizarre scenes of the surrealistic crowds following a mystic symbolism are ranked among the most powerful art of modern China. Surely they are connected to the traumatic, life-threatening situations the artist experienced in his childhood and to the most intensive feelings and imaginations of an artist. His figures show stereotyped dancing movements and puppet-like stiffness. The unified masses fight in precise battle formations against the course of things. But they are unable to achieve any results.

Minjie shows rough, rural people from the Chinese north - almost exclusively males - doing their everyday work, riding in full charge or being accompanied by animals. Frequently walls can be found in his works.

The reduced diversity of colors corresponds with the subject. Often the colors are dreary, gloomy and earthy. They are seldom bright and cheerful. This produces an alienating effect towards reality.

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Dieter WanczuraAuthor: Dieter Wanczura

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